Monday, December 21, 2015

Physical Space Makes a Difference

Empowered Collaborative Learners
One of the things we believe in for our students is the need to be collaborative learners.  Problem solving and creativity rarely happen as solely an individual pursuit. We are social creatures who depend on others for so many things including our learning.  Our vision for learning requires a different kind of space to support the interactive, messy, sometimes chaotic, always changing, and noisy process that is learning. So, how do we support this type of student learning?

Team-Based Professional Development
Professional development, is certainly part of changing the learning environment.  Learning for adults mirrors the type of learning we want for students. We are team based with 3 hours of collaborative PD time in each week. K-12 teams and grade level/content area teams meet weekly. This supports our professional learning community (PLC) model where teachers own the learning and decide the direction they need to take to work towards our district vision.

Setting team goals, viewing and giving feedback on instruction and discussing articles and student work require a collaborative space. As our PD model has become more entrenched, teacher teams naturally started gravitating to rooms where there were tables instead of desks. They went where there were comfortable chairs on wheels and spaces that were more open.  They started asking for different types of furniture in their own rooms. Now, all our team meetings happen in rooms with no student desks (and we still have plenty of rooms that have student desks yet - finances are still a reality).

The Difference Furniture Can Make
The furniture in a learning space says a lot about what you believe learning should look like. If desks are all placed in rows, it says, "No talking. Be Quiet. Listen" Likewise, when furniture is arranged in groups, it communicates something about cooperative learning. What does it say when there are a variety of types of furniture that are easily movable for students? We believe it says, "You have a choice. What type of setting is best for what you need to learn and accomplish?"

When it's a chore to move furniture, it rarely gets moved. If it does get moved, it is usually through a planned lesson on the teacher part where he/she allows the furniture to be moved. It's a chore and rarely spontaneous.

As we encourage students to take more ownership in their learning, to become empowered learners, it seem contradictory to say, "Now do it quietly in these nice rows of desks." Instead, flexibility in space and furniture has become key. Sometimes we need to sit and listen; sometimes we need to sit and work alone; many times we need to talk with others to do our best work. Our space design tried to take into account flexibility. We planned a variety of learning spaces with a variety of furniture to support student choice, comfort and need. The picture below is the furniture design for a collaboration space in our building.

Here's the actual picture of the collaboration space. Campfire seating (circular) lends itself to conversation. You should have heard these students (left) when they walked in the collaboration room as they prepared for the technology class. They were so excited to enter the room and they raced to the middle area seating where they just started talking about their projects. No one wanted to be left out. Some pulled up chairs to join. Besides this campfire seating there is a high top table with 8 seats, three white board tables that can be grouped to seat 6, there are two soft seating groupings in the room, bean bags and easily movable stools.

Thinking About Unique Learning Spaces
When you envision a place for your teachers to collaborate and learn, how does the furniture support that?  This space pictured to the right was too small to be a classroom, and is just off the collaboration space pictured above. This became a perfect place for adult learning resources. You might not notice the technology access in the space. An interactive whiteboard, Apple TV, mobile devices, and Swivl recording devices are all housed here. Yes, there's a treadmill in the PLC Room for teachers to use while they watch video, read, learn or just have down time (desk for it is being designed by our high school shop class). The furniture can be easily moved from the sofa look to a campfire look.

The lobby space has had a variety of furniture in it over the past 7 years I've been here. It has always been a congregation place for students. Various pieces of furniture have come and gone in the space. As students gave input on the types of furniture they preferred, one high top table seating 8-10 students (instead of shorter, smaller tables) is the main seating area in our lobby. Along with a long sofa piece and a smaller grouping of soft chairs, the lobby is a hub for student learning throughout the day.

When thinking about the types of learning experiences students need to be regularly engaging with as 21st century learners, collaborative problem solvers is surely part of the mix. With just a couple of furniture changes made in these existing spaces, we are already starting to see our students gravitating toward these spaces. It supports the feel of our building that learning happens everywhere.